Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trial by Jury: A Recent Insight

In the wake of the horrible Anthony trial in Florida, and the rather surprising not-guilty verdict, I thought I'd write a short post on my experience in jury duty last week.

I was called into a small district courthouse that handled "minor" offenses. Usually, the trials lasted 1-3 days, mine ending in a single day. The facilities and the process was remarkably comfortable and straightforward - and the judge was incredibly kind and engaged with the jury.  The case in question was a DUI - or technically, driving while under the influence of an intoxicating liquor. No one was hurt. There was limited erratic behavior (ran a no-right-turn-on-red).

There is a 3 prong test for conviction of a DUI.

a) you have to prove the person was, in fact, operating a motor vehicle. Everyone agreed this was, in fact, happening.
b) That operation has to happen on a public road - which, given the location of it all, was clear
c) the person has to have been under the influence -- which isn't drunk. It's just.. too tipsy to drive.

C is the kicker. But, let me state for the record that neither the prosecution nor the defense laid this out to us as clearly as I have just done. Had the judge not gone over the law specifically, we'd still be wondering what they had to prove.

Secondly, a great deal of evidence of the woman's alleged inebriation was brought to bear on the trial:

a) The no-right turn on red sign she ran at 2am with a cop car in the intersection -- which, frankly, we all can imagine doing (though maybe not with a cop car there)
b) The fact that when the cop stepped up to her window, she accidentally lowered the wrong one -- which I think I do EVERY DAY, stone-cold sober
c) The alcohol smell and red eyes the cop witnessed when he spoke with her
d) The fact that she was wearing a borrowed pair of high heels, which in some way impaired her ability to take a field sobriety test (walking a line) -- there were witnesses discussing the boots in question and their ownership.
e) Her inability to take off these high heels without allegedly falling back onto her car
f) The fact that she failed 2 field sobriety tests without the heels on
g) Her allegation that she simply opted out of the final test. Because she didn't want to do it anymore.
h) Her alleged speak impediment that might create the impression of slurred speech.

No breathalizer. 2 cops on the witness stand. Mommy and 2 friends for the defense. And, there was testimony by the defendant herself that she had had 4 beers that night, which anyone can round up to 6. Frankly, I was waiting.. begging.. pleading for some sort of sob story that she had recently broken up with her fiance and spent the last 6 hours in tears of agony and emotional distress. But, no such luck. The case hinged on one thing: She thought she had sobered up enough.

To me, this was cut and dried. But, we entered the jury room - 6 woman - and started talking. I will say, we had to explicitly cull through each of the facts above in order to reach a conclusion. It was not swift. 5 of us agreed. The 6th did not. If you've seen 12 Angry Men (and you should), I was having flashbacks.

Clearly, the shoes didn't matter. We had no idea where her old shoes went, and we didn't care. We also didn't care about the traffic violation or the window failures. Her testimony on the witness stand proved she had no appreciable lisp of any sort. The 12 year old prosecutor failed to net it out: She smelled like liquor, we agree she was drinking, and she failed 2 barefoot field tests and potentially a third, depending on how you characterize "opting out."  Why he didn't close with that, I will never know. Why did he bring up those damned windows again?

I say this only to emphasize that a LOT of absolutely ridiculous and secondary information gets shared with juries - and prosecutors and defense attorneys don't always make the decision easy. They cloud it with "what side of the boot was the zipper on?" and "how many years were you in cop school?" and so on. We had to work for 45 minutes to get to the core information - and to remind a somewhat logically/computationally challenged juror with a heart of gold that SHE FAILED THE FIELD SOBRIETY TESTS.

At the end, we found the defendant guilty. Guilty of being stupid. Guilty of being so entitled and whiny that she got 10 people to sit around all day and listen to her "I wasn't that drunk" defense. Guilty of being too ridiculous to take her lumps, take the bus to work for a month, and sit in some safety courses. And, of course, Guilty of a DUI.

I'm not sure how Casey Anthony was let off the hook. But, I was much more surprised that it took so little time -- than that she was set free.


Boaz said...

A couple of things to consider:

1) We were not there. We don't know all of what the jurors heard, or what their thoughts were.

2) Many (probably most) people think more emotionally than logically.

3) Our legal system is set up to err on the side of leniency.

4) Cameras and celebrity settings do weird things to people.

Maybe they were keeping track and had made their decisions already based on the prosecution's lack of convincing them beyond a reasonable doubt. Maybe something else. What I do not understand is why people made a national spectacle out of the trial.

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Capt. BS said...

Um, I have a stupid question? Was I the only person on the planet who was not following this trial, mostly because I'd never heard of this case or any of the people involved? It seems like everyone and their mother has an opinion on the verdict. Why was this 72-point-font headline news (or even national news)?

At any rate, with regard to this DUI case, I'm not surprised that the defense, lacking factual evidence that directly supported its case, attempted to dilute the facts presented by the prosecution... It's no different from a politician running a negative campaign filled with misinformation about an opponent or issue s/he does not favor. ("Death panels!" "Swift boats!" "Birth certificates!") Or, put another way, it's no different from Marty McFly's famous escape ruse: "I just have one question for you, Biff... What the hell is that?!"